Genealogy Introduction—Military Research at the National Archives: Volunteer Service

Hello, my name is John Deeben. I’m one of
the genealogy archives specialists at the National Archives and Records Administration.
In this lecture, I’m going to talk about how to research military service. I’m focusing
specifically in this lecture on volunteer service in the U.S. Military. They’re different
types of service that documented in different ways. Volunteer service of course encompassed
the state regiments and local militia that were raised for specific wars or national
emergencies. The regiments were recruited and then fought in and served and then, at
the end of the wars, the regiments were disbanded and then went home, and that was the extent
of their service. Because of that, the War Department never had any official documents
per se to record the history of their service. So, in the 1890s, they decided to create the
compiled military service records. And these are the basic records that we have to document
volunteer service in the U.S. Military. They started to do it originally for Union veterans
to document their service in terms of verifying their service for pension benefits, and then
afterward they went back and documented volunteer soldiers for other wars as well going back
to the Revolutionary War. So, the records that we have there were extracted information
from original records that were were kept at the time of the wars took place including
muster rolls, pay rolls, unit returns, hospital records, prison records, and things of that
nature. And they went through these records and they had employed thousands of workers
to go through all these records and extract very specific information about individual
soldiers from these records. They copied the information down on individual cards, and
those cards became that soldier’s compiled service record. So, the compiled military
service records that we now have are arranged by war, by state, then by unit, and then alphabetically
by the soldier’s name. And we have compiled service records then going back from the Revolutionary
War in 1775 all the way up to the early 20th Century and the Philippine Insurrection which
ended in 1902. So, we have for the Revolutionary War, we have compiled service records for
the post-Revolutionary period from 1784 to 1811 which included a lot of militias that
were raised to protect the frontiers against the Indian warfare, the War of 1812, other
antebellum Indian wars from the First Seminole War to the Third Seminole War which ended
in 1858, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine Insurrection.
All those records, the compiled service records, are available in textual form with a few exceptions.
For the Revolutionary War, for the post-Revolutionary period, and for selected records from the
Civil War are available on microfilm. For the Civil War specifically what we have available
on film for compiled service records are the Confederate service records, and on the Union
side we have selected records for the border states, Western states and territories, and
Southern states who supplied Union troops during the war. So, for your major Northern
states Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and so on,
those records are still only available in textual form. So, what basic information can
you find in a compiled service record for a volunteer soldier? It will give his full
name, his dates of enlistment or when he was mustered into service and also his dates of
discharge, show when he was mustered out sometimes it will give you his period of service if
he enlisted for a three-year term or two year and nine month term and so forth. It usually
gives his residence not necessarily the place he was born but where he was residing at the
time that he enlisted, some personal information, sometimes you get a person’s description…height,
weight, eye and hair colors, and so forth. And then it will also have notations regarding
specific activities or events of notice that took place during his service. If he was assigned
to special duty for some reason, if he was captured and served time in a prisoner of
war camp, or if he was in a hospital wounded or things of that nature. That will be noted
on the service record’s cards as well. So, we’ll take a look at a specific example
looking at William Graham who served in the First Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary
War. If you look at the first image from that service record, this actually image of the
jacket that the record is contained in, and it gives you the basic information right on
the jacket about the soldier including his name, his unit, the war he served in, and
it will also provide the rank that he held when he went into service and the rank that
he held when he was discharged from service. There are also a series of card numbers that
are arranged on the front of the jacket. Generally what these cards refer to, each number is
stamped on the back of one of the cards that are inside the jacket. So, basically this
was basically a recordkeeping technique that was used by the War Department to make sure
that the right cards were filed with the right jacket. So, they don’t lead necessarily
to any other specific records. However, if you look at the bottom of the jacket where
it says bookmark if you see information recorded there, numbers or any other notations, those
could lead you to other textual that we might have in our holdings. So, it would definitely
be worthwhile to take a look at that. If we look at some of the cards inside the jacket,
um you’ll find other more specific information about the soldier. The first card in this
slide shows more specific information about the company that he served in and in this
case it shows the name of his company commander, Captain Abraham Hunt, and it also shows his
regimental commander, Colonel Joseph Vose. So, that’s more specific information that
we didn’t have from the front of the jacket. Sometimes you also notice variations in spelling
of the last name. Here you’ll see his last name spelled G-R-A-Y-H-A-M as well as traditional
Graham G-R-A-H-A-M. You’ll have to remember that when these original records were at a
time when all the information was transmitted verbally, so there are going to be spelling
variations. So, you just need to be aware of that. The cards also show his date of enlistment,
January 26, 1776, and you’ll also notice that between two of the cards there’s a
change in rank. In January of 1778, he’s still holding the rank of corporal that he
went into the service with. But um in May of 1779, he’s a private. We don’t know
why. The records don’t indicate on the cards, but something happened at some point in time
that he’s broken in rank from corporal to private. But as we saw on the jacket, he ended
his service as a corporal. So whatever happened, he must have redeemed himself and regained
his original rank. But of course the records don’t specifically indicate what might have
happened. So just to summarize then, the basic information that you can find in the compiled
service record. We have the soldier’s name William Graham. We learned that he served
in Captain Abraham Hunt’s company of Colonel Joseph Vose’s First Massachusetts Regiment.
It’s also known sometimes and recorded as the First Massachusetts Battalion of Forces.
He enlisted January 26 of 1776. After three years of holding the rank of corporal, he
had been demoted to private, but ending his service as a corporal again. And it also shows
that the various pay raises that he received during his time of service. For example, when
he was serving as a corporal in January of 1778, he was being paid seven and a third
dollars per month for that service. When he was serving those few months as a private,
he received six and two thirds dollars per month for that service. Where can you generally
find the records? Well, the textual records are available here at the National Archives
building. The records that are available on microfilm and also online you can also find
on Footnote, Ancestry or Heritage Quest online. And you can also, if you can’t visit the
National Archives in Washington in person, you can request the records through the mail
using traditional mailing form that’s available to download from our website “”

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